The tea industry in India is one of the oldest industries and one of the largest employers. Over 12 hundred thousand permanent and almost the same number of casual and seasonal, workers are employed in the tea industry. Over 50 per cent of the workers, and in some operations like tea plucking, over 80 per cent of the workers, are women.
There are broadly four categories of personnel on the plantations – management, staff, sub-staff and workers. But the workers who work on the plantation comprise the bulk of the workforce of the plantation. The ‘field workers’ are engaged in plucking and activities related to the maintenance of the plantation and the bushes. Nearly all of this most difficult and hazardous work is performed by women workers. Women carry heavy loads of green leaf on their backs every day for years from very young and later whether they're pregnant or old.
Over 90 per cent of the tea workers are either Scheduled Tribes or Scheduled Castes – the lowest in the caste, ethnicity, class and resource hierarchy. Most of the families of the workers have been forcibly or fraudulently brought to the tea gardens several generations ago.
The work of tea workers is arduous in addition to being low paid and insecure. Tea pickers are on their feet all day with heavy baskets on their backs, often on uneven terrain and in harsh weather conditions. Injuries are common, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases.
Over the years, however, the majority of workers came to be members of one trade union or the other. Most unions in India, including those in the tea plantations, are affiliated to and controlled by political parties. What this means for workers, their wages, and their rights is a different matter.
Though women workers constitute the majority of the workforce, most top level leadership consists of men. The higher level positions in the union are generally occupied by non-(tea) worker male leaders, mainly middle-class men. Either there are no elections, or elections are held which tend to be uncontested, and the same (male) leaders get elected over and over again. This could be one of the reasons why a vicious cycle of ineffective trade unions and non-representation of the interests of the majority of workers exists.
In a process that the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union (PTWU) began in April 2010, a series of workshops were organized where over a 100 women from about 30 tea plantations participated. All the women workers had participated in several struggles and in the process of organizing.
This resulted in a process whereby women workers from different plantations and also different ethnic groups began meeting and looking at common issues, including questioning the union on why women are not represented in their committees. This is a new beginning and an ongoing process.